Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media

An individual is not smart, according to our culture.  An individual is merely lucky to be part of a system that has intelligence that happens to reside in them.  In other words, be humble about this always.  The real intelligence isn’t the property of an individual corporation – the real intelligence is the property of the universe itself.  John Mohawk Scholar - Turtle Clan Seneca  

by Griselda Steiner

Scene4 Magazine-inSight

april 2008

A compilation of essays and talks by Indigenous leaders from First Nation cultures around the world, members of Bioneers who have spoken at recent conferences, this book presents ‘How To’ earth wisdom that should be at the forefront of global efforts to restore the planet. These activists, chiefs, elders, midwives and shamans use straight talk that strikes at the heart of mainstream misconceptions regarding political history, the environment, women’s issues and ideological constructs offering positive alternatives with a spiritual worldview that respects all life.  Descendants of generations that thrived in natural environments, they are recapturing first hand knowledge inherited through millennia of creating harmonious societies.  On the verge of extinction after suffering from the genocidal tactics of colonizers and corporate mavericks still exploiting their territories, these speakers celebrate the recovery of indigenous languages, sacred stories and food gathering practices.  When they identify themselves, their ’ “I am” is “I am the land”.

In his talk “A Democracy Based on Peace”, Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons, tells how at one time, a great Peacemaker came among the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) who brought together leaders of the original five nations – Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas and helped them create a confederacy ruled by the Great Law of Peace.  Few people know that when the colonizers declared independence from England, Onandagan methods of self-governance became their model. “All of those people who were out there on the frontiers loved to be free…in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1744 when several of the governors were arguing among themselves, one of the Onondaga leaders stood up and said to them, “You know you’re never going to amount to anything until you quit arguing with one another.  Why don’t you make a union like ours, why don’t you make a league of unity, peace and democracy.”  Benjamin Franklin agreed and in 1754 he called the Albany Plan of Union meeting that lead to the American Revolution.

Many of the speakers’ native lands, food plants, marine life and general livelihoods have been destroyed when big business and government interests buy into their territories with false promises and leave toxic devastation in their wake.  In her presentation “Powerful Like a River”, Kati Cook, Wolf Clan Mohawk, who grew up swimming in the St. Lawrence River, states that when the St. Lawrence Seaway Project, spearheaded by Robert Moses, opened the Great Lakes to industrial development in the 1950’s, contaminants from the riverbed were dredged up and dumped on reservation shores. As a mid-wife, one of the many health risks she evaluated was the high level of PCBs in native mother’s breast milk.  When she became a grass roots organizer in the environmental justice movement dealing with huge moneyed complicity and Federal law, she became instrumental in identifying crisis. She states, “As a community you can engage the research process as a process of empowerment, but we need to be very cautious in laying down the groundwork in negotiating our relationship with scientific institutions.”  

With the best intentions, but only textbook knowledge, many ‘green’ initiatives are misguided.  In the chapter “Restoring Indigenous History and Culture to Nature”, speakers Dennis Martinez, Enrique Salmon and Mellisa K. Nelson discuss contrasts and areas of cooperation between native agricultural methods and the Western environmental movement.  Dennis Martinez of O’odham/Chicano/Anglo heritage describes tribal relations with nature as kinetic. He comments, “Humans don’t have the moral authority to extend ethics to the land community as the Leopold land ethic and deep ecology do… We are co-managers with animals and plants.”  He gives specific examples when interference with tribal practices that once successfully maintained a species, as well as improved its food harvesting, ended in destruction. The Coast Miwok of Marin County tended eleven clam beds, but after the California Department of Fish and Game stopped them to preserve the resource, only one bed remained.  By moving the beds, the Indians had protected them from over-population and the spread of disease.   Andean, Julio Valladodid Rivera said,  “I want to finish by saying that the agriculture of the future will resemble more the agriculture of the first peoples than commercial agriculture today. The conception of life must be reinvigorated because it is the guarantee of maintaining life on the planet.”

In “She is Us: Thought Woman and the Sustainability of Worship” poet Paula Gunn Allen, who grew up in Pueblo culture, expounds on the Great Mother.  With iconoclastic wit, she explains why it is difficult to translate native stories about Her that reflect a worldview filled with multiplicity and interaction. She believes that reverence for the feminine principle should be motivating and says, “She’s not pretty, she’s beautiful… She is one scary bitch.” As nature She dwarfs our efforts and illusions. “We don’t understand the supernaturals… What the tribal people all recognize is that those communities are absolutely real and have everything to do with us.  What we’ve done in the West is walk away from them and say, Oh, superstition, Oh, devil.  Oh, evil… We’ve put military bases on sacred spots… we’ve found the sacred places and we’ve bombed them.  Not in war, we call it target practice.”   In her way of thinking, “You can’t change, fix, or solve anything. But you can live and learn and have gratitude and love.”

In her introduction, Melissa K. Nelson, writes, “Unlike many classical Western and Eastern prophesies, Indigenous prophecies do not necessarily revolve around a prophet.  Maybe a prophet brought the teaching, but the emphasis is on the message and the collective tribal body or community that holds the message, not the messenger.”   Having given early warning of global warming for many years before public awareness, Hopi Indian Thomas Banyacya, finally addressed the General Assembly at the United Nations in 1998 sharing ancient prophecy with world delegates. Ironically, as he was predicting natural backlash, that day in New York City a rainstorm left more than 3 feet of water and the building was shut down.

Bioneers, which have held annual conferences for over 18 years, is an educational non-profit whose mission is to foster “solutions grounded in four billion years of evolutionary intelligence.” With candidates today demanding ‘Change’, perhaps the next president should place a Bioneer in the cabinet who would lead America to ‘Recovery’. By purchasing this book you become part of the solution by supporting the Hacienda Rio Cote Project reforesting lands in Costa Rica.  


Original Instructions
Indigenous Teachings for a Sustainable Future

Edited by Melissa K. Nelson
Contributions by John Mohawk, Winona LaDuke, John Trudell, and others
Published by Bear & Company 2008
Available at:


©2008 Griselda Steiner
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Griselda Steiner is a poet, dramatist and freelance writer
living in New York City's West Village

For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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